Nov 21 2019

Virtual Education

Published by under Education
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When I was in high school in the 1970s, computers were just entering the school environment. We had a small computer lab with embarrassingly primitive computers by today’s standards, but at the time they were cool. I remember using one very simple DOS-based program that taught the user how to use chemical nomenclature. It was a simple game where you get asked to solve a problem and then are given immediate feedback. I was impressed at how quick my learning curve was using this simple individualized feedback mechanism. Basically this was a video game designed to teach one skill, and it worked really well.

At the time, and really ever since, I figured that in the near future schools and education would be transformed by this technology. Now, four decades later, I am surprised at how little such technology has been incorporated into the classroom. My teen-aged self would be shocked.

For sure there is great educational software out there. But they are mostly commercial products intended to use at home. If you want to learn a language, or improve your child’s reading skills, there are apps for that. It is still a lot less than I would have figured, and less than it should be. And what’s missing is a comprehensive virtual educational curriculum designed for use by schools. The bottom line is that I don’t think we are leveraging this technology as much as we should, by at least an order of magnitude.

I was reminded of this by a recent study that finds that young children learn basic math skills more quickly from an AI virtual character.¬† What they call “parasocial” interaction (because it is with a virtual character powered by AI) improved the math skills of children beyond computer learning without the virtual character.

I am seeing moves in this direction. Certainly many schools (those with adequate resources) have access to computers for their students, and often they are incorporated into their assignments. I have a daughter in college and another still in highschool, so I just witnessed a standard public education in a fairly affluent part of the country. My overall assessment is that computer learning is an afterthought. It has not been integrated into the learning experience. Their education was and is still essentially based on teachers and text-books. This style of education is obsolete, and extremely inefficient compared to what it can be.

First, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel millions of times in every classroom. The quality of the education children receive is still largely dependent on the quality of their teacher (this is, in fact, the single most important factor). This exacerbates education inequality. I have witnessed this with my own daughter – each teacher is a roll of the dice. I have seen them thrive with a great teacher, and flounder with a bad one. We should obviously strive to improve teacher quality, because it will always be important, but we can level the playing field by giving all teachers more virtual resources.

What I feel a fully integrated educational experience should (and could) be like today, and where we should be rapidly heading, is this: First, the tech of individual lectures is outdated. I say this as someone who loves giving lectures and I think I’m pretty good at it. But why have thousands of teachers of widely varying quality standing up in front of students and talking at them? Rather, on each topic craft an optimal lecture and have one of the best teachers record it on video and/or audio. This medium can also incorporate graphics and other information communication aids. Students can then watch or listen to this content at their own pace and in their own time.

By the way, this is essentially what The Great Courses is. I have two courses with this company (and an audio book coming out) and the process is great. These are college-level courses. They should exist for the K-12 curricula.

Combine the video/audio content with written references, lists, descriptions, and extensions. So basically students will get most of their information from these sources, not from a live teacher talking to them. Then, use classroom time to do, essentially, workshop-type activities. This is where the information is integrated and put to use, and therefore reinforced. Teachers are also available to answer questions, give further context, and make sure the students have absorbed the essential lessons.

Computer programs can also be used just to convey information, but are better suited for learning skills. This is the video-game approach, where feedback is given instantly and students can progress at an individualized pace until they master the necessary skills. Again, live teachers are then there to reinforce the skills, put them to use, and of course assess students on their learning. Even without virtual reality and AI this system, if well crafted, could be far superior to what we have today. VR and AI are added tools that can make the computer-based learning experience that much better.

There resources can create a baseline, so that even schools without great teachers can still provide (assuming that adequate resources are made available) a great baseline education.

I know that all of these things are happening already to some extent. And when incorporated, they work really well. In my medical school, students mostly get their lectures through podcasts and videos, and then classroom time is for workshops. This is definitely the way to go.

You could also learn just about anything you want from Youtube or commercial products. Whenever my daughters came to me with a homework assignment they did not understand, for example, I tried to go through it with them with the resources provided by the school. They invariably were terrible (which is why they were having problems in the first place). Then we would search for a video on Youtube going over the same content, and we could always find a video that was leaps and bounds better than what the school provided, and then we were able to understand the assignment and breeze through it. This is the power of a great teacher who knows how to explain a concept well. Not every classroom has such a teacher – but that no longer has to matter. The best most talented teachers can explain everything and put it on Youtube or in a recorded course.

My sense is that the education culture feels a little threatened by all this. But they should not fight against it. They should embrace it fully. It will transform education.

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